A Brief History of Grades and Gradeless Learning


8 min read

The incredibly named I.E. Finklestein once said,

When we consider the practically universal use in all educational institutions of a system of marks, whether numbers or letters, to indicate scholastic attainment of the pupils or students in these institutions, and when we remember how very great stress is laid by teachers and pupils alike upon these marks as real measures or indicators of attainment, we can but be astonished at the blind faith that has been felt in the reliability of the marking system. School administrators have been using with confidence an absolutely uncalibrated instrument... What faults appear in the marking system that we are now using, and how can these be avoided or minimized?

And that was in 1913. Maybe it’s time we reconsider grading.

The American grading system  had its roots in the mid 1800s, when Yale and Harvard experimented with different points, percentage, and other metric systems. By 1897, the relatively small women’s college, Mount Holyoke, combined these ideas into the modern letter grade scale - a 4.0 is an A, 3.0 is a B, so on and so forth.

Of course, there is an entire history of arguments and reforms leading up to this point. In 1846, an early adopter of standardization and proponent of public education, Horace Mann, expressed concerns that students would be too focused on class rank and may, “incur moral hazards and delinquencies” as they chased extrinsic motivation. His solution was to show progress of a student overtime through monthly report cards, as to show growth and development. In general, early reformers saw report cards as a way to inspire intrinsic motivation while still tracking a student’s progress.

As the school system rapidly expanded in the late 19th century, becoming compulsory in almost every state, it became obvious to teachers and administrators that as class sizes grew larger, they needed an efficient means to communicate a child’s knowledge. A shift began from detailed feedback -- what could be seen as essentially a “growth mindset” model -- to that of rote assessment. This was especially the case after the creation of the College Entrance Examination Board in 1899 (which is the College Board of today.) The push was to standardize grades so that colleges would not only value class rank, but have the same universal scoring: an A was the same at one school as it was another. This led to more standardization through curriculum, scheduling, and general school culture.

There was a lot of confusion and uncertainty. Tuition fees began to be covered for high ranked and straight-A students, but if students are taking different classes...how can colleges measure student class rank efficiently? A solution was attempted through Harvard’s Book of Comparative Merit, detailing the value of every course that may be offered, but ultimately was rejected as it really made no sense (class descriptions, concepts, and difficulty still varied drastically, no matter the course title). This concept is still attempted today through the 5.0 scale for AP classes and promotion of STEM courses, with relative disregard for the arts.

Soon after in the time of Finklestein, the critic of grading mentioned earlier in the early 1900s, a divide emerged between those doubling down on the standardization of grading and those rejecting the practice outright.

In 1911, an observer at the University of Missouri wrote, “the grade has in more than one sense a cash value, and if there is no uniformity of grading in an institution, this means directly that values are stolen from some and undeservedly presented to others”

Whereas the economist Thorsten Velben stated in 1918, the “system of academic grading and credit... resistlessly bends more and more of current instruction to its mechanical tests and progressively sterilizes all personal initiative and ambition that comes within its sweep.”

And a teacher in 1935 said that those who rejected report cards are a  “challenge from a group of young crusaders who have chosen to be known as the Intrinsic Clan against the entire family whose surname is Extrinsic”

Many of these reformist mindsets were influenced by John Dewey, who published a variety of works on progressive and experiential education in the early 1900s.

As is obvious today, the graders won. Not only did teachers see them as a valuable motivator, but when the school system kept rapidly expanding and more universities were built -- grades were the most practical way of communication. V.L. Beggs, a critic of report cards especially for elementary school, reminisced in 1936 that too many people “conclude that the school’s most important contribution to the child’s education is recorded on the card’.”

At the same time, the use of the IQ test in the military (which corresponded with the growth of the eugenics movement and at around the same time, led to the establishment of the SAT) prompted proponents of standardization to find even more ways to attempt objective grading. They sought to measure intelligence based on mathematical principles and racist scientific observations through eugenics. Again, educators pushed back against the “objectiveness” of grading -- but as time went on, many accepted grading as the norm but argued the “best effective grading method.” A small group of teachers in 1936 attempted a “narrative letter” -- where they sat down together and wrote a letter on each student’s progress to parents which was formatted with a standardized form. Interestingly, they later remarked these letters would ‘become as meaningless and as stereotyped as the subject marks they replaced’, going as far to say that these letters would become  ‘false standards of value among our pupils.’ (Geyer 1938: 531)

Through the 1960s,  most teachers and school districts felt beholden to the grading system and college admissions process. But by now, more and more critics entered the system, ranging from the old arguments of restoring intrinsic motivation, to restoring student well-being as young people were increasingly anxious and disparaged about doing poorly.

At this point, it’s come full circle. We’re faced with the challenge of replacing the grading system, waxing and waning from feedback to “objective grades” decade after decade. However, what about the historical problems that were faced when teachers attempted to not use grades? How will we compare what one student knows to another? After all, colleges are set up to analyze marks. And then, what about teachers? How can they possibly grade and leave substantiated feedback to all their students when class sizes are so large?

The debate of the last 150 years is essentially the same as today: do we accept grading as a measurement of student learning and find ways to make it increasingly objective, or do we find a way to communicate knowledge without ever assigning a grade? It’s interesting to note how recent this system is. Not only was it quickly developed in a relatively short time frame, but almost the entirety of assessment and college admissions is defined by practices of the 2nd Industrial Revolution, when one room school buildings were the norm and many children would hike 2 miles to school. Its newness is part of the reason why this discussion is so important. The sooner an institutionalized change is made, the easier it is to deconstruct, question, and make anew.

Crafting a New System

It is my view that grading is a practice that hurts children: it makes them demotivated if they’re doing poorly and motivates toward an extrinsic goal other than learning. It seems as if we succeed in spite of how grades are given, rather than achieving because of high grades.

It’s a situation that’s happened in my classroom, prior to adopting gradeless learning, at many times. I hand a student extensive project feedback with myriad notes, but they see a “B”, put it away in their backpack, and that’s the end of it. If a student gets a “D” and they worked hard...they just give up. And if they’re used to low grades they make an aside about the uselessness of school and never push to succeed. Then there’s the student who always gets A’s and goes into a panic if their grade is anything but. None of these situations have anything at all to do with learning: no one is asking what they did well or how to get better, no one really cares about the content. They just care about the mark; extrinsic motivation for a reward. Our goal should be to restore intrinsic motivation where we learn just to learn, what humans naturally do and what inspires a lifelong curiosity and love of learning.

In excess, extrinsic motivators cause harm. Many children love to read but the second a new reading program provides them with pizza for reading 5 books and taking a quiz, they become purely focused on eating at Pizza Hut than caring about what they read. Students have a variety of interests as they enter school, but overtime lose focus on asking and exploring anything outside of what’s on the test -- after all, there’s no grade associated with it.

There’s so much research that supports this notion that it’s simply nauseating. Although this research has its faults (much of it is measured through equally subjective test scores), the data on grading highlights how ineffective it really is.

Here’s some studies from the last few decades:

  • In 1987, and then followed up in 1988, Ruth Butler researched that students had by far the highest motivation to learn when they were only given feedback for their assessments, followed by being given feedback with a grade, with the lowest motivation being for only a grade.
  • In 1991, Hall Beck found that students who have a “grading orientation”, which means they care primarily about their grades,actually had lower GPAs and more importantly worse emotional and social well-being than those with a “learning orientation” who simply wanted to learn new things.
  • Aleidine Moeller in 1993 found that when taking a test, students were not any more motivated for that test when they knew grades were involved.
  • In 1996, John Krumbultz outlined how the competition that arises from grading practices made students lose their sense of safety in the classroom, which is widely regarded as the most basic need for learning.
  • Eric Anderman in 1997 researched that when students saw a test as a measurement for incentives and stressful, that they were more likely to cheat than those who saw it as a method for improvement.
  • Gary Natriello found in 1998 that there was an obvious correlation between those who scored low grades and those who stayed in school.
  • In 2008, Anastasia Lipnevich replicated Butler’s study and found that feedback without a grade had the highest motivation for student success.
  • In 2011, Caroline Pulfrey performed multiple experiments to reveal that students did not try as hard, nor were motivated as much, by assignments that had grades.
  • Carine Souchal found in 2014 that competitive grading practices impacted the psyche of girl students in science classes, as historically those tests had been favored toward male students (this phenomena is explained perfectly in Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele).
  • In 2015, Anne-Sophie Hayek revealed that when working in a group project, groups were less cooperative and not willing to share as much when they knew they would receive a contribution grade.
  • Also in 2015, Astrid Poorthuis found that obviously students who receive a low grade on their halfway report card had much decreased grades and performance for their final report card.

These are just some studies of 100s that exist, including many from the 1800s and early 1900s, and the same exact themes come across in each: grades hurt a student’s interest in learning and only seem to, at best, motivate high-achieving students for the wrong reasons. If our goal is to engage every student and make them better at what they do, then it seems completely counterintuitive to issue them a grade telling them they’re not doing well -- as it will completely destroy any element for them wanting to do better. In other words, the system works to make the gap larger between those who perform well and those who don’t. Those who don’t fall further behind as they’re increasingly demotivated toward school work and those who consistently do well stay at the top.

And it’s not that those doing well are necessarily “doing well”, they may have high grades but increasing anxiety rates, low social/emotional well-being, and lack of interests outside of schoolwork. The typical “all A” student is completely overtaken by the system: they do what they’re told, meet the parameters, and follow an over-the-top schedule for means of college admission. They no longer have a clue to why they’re doing what they’re doing and as a result, many of these students are losing their imagination and lack overall purpose. Most importantly, they’re simply not happy.

Schools are places of learning. It shouldn’t be a charged statement to say that students should want to learn at school. We know that kids want to learn...any small child can’t wait to explore anything they can get their hands on: whether that be books, experiments, asking questions, or playing with their friends. But the longer they’re in school, the more they go through the motions -- and grades play a big part in that. Of course, I don’t want to imply that older students aren’t interested in anything at all. Many young people will subject themselves to hours of YouTube vlogs, which are essentially hour-long lectures, to learn about something that interests them. And grades are the sole issue, but they are an issue that can be changed.

*Historical quotes and information is accessed from Making the grade: a history of the A–F marking scheme by Jack Schneider & Ethan Hunt (2013).

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